After the Boston Brahmins, other words derived from our enduring practice of caste surface in different parts of the world. Last week I found that “caste” itself has entered the political lexicon of those Italian politicians who are described disparagingly as “populist”. In the new see-saw world order, the “populists” are now on the Rome gaddi. The ones they have dethroned are referred to as caste leaders, or leaders who believed it was their divine right to rule in perpetuity. This sense of a permanent ruling class derives from the post-World War II power structure, kept in place by the entire Western bloc as a bulwark against the Soviet Union. The permanent stranglehold of Christian Democrats on Rome was for two diametrically opposite reasons: (a) the hyper-anxiety of the Vatican about Communism, both external and internal; and (b) Europe’s largest Communist Party, which the conservative Italian ruling class feared might clasp the Soviet hand should be Christian Democrats somehow not be there. It is, therefore, reasonable to infer that elements in the CD saw the twin dangers of the Soviet Union and the enduring Italian Communists as guarantors of their permanence. If power corrupts then it follows, as night follows the day, that power with permanence built into it, would corrupt absolutely.
The Italian Communists under charismatic leader Enrico Berlinguer did everything possible to acquire wider acceptability in a deeply Christian country — he distanced himself from the Soviets and even sought what came to be known as a “historic compromise” with the Christian Democrats. The upshot was the Communists diminished themselves. And when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991-92, the Christian Democrats had lost both their “blackmail” cards, the ones that kept them permanently in office. Italy’s conscientious judges, suffocated by the unspeakable corruption during the Cold War, came into their own once the Soviet threat was over. In 1992 began an epochal series of investigations which sent hundreds of politicians, civil servants and businessmen to jail. Protected during the Cold War, the right-wing political class stood exposed and naked. Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s richest businessman and media mogul, spotted an opportunity. With a touch of cunning he chastised the entire political class. “Plague on all your houses”, he blared. A nation, disgusted with politicians, decided to give Mr Berlusconi’s “non-politics” a chance. He set himself up as a model. Look, by sheer dint of hard work, how far have I come. Having succeeded in becoming Prime Minister in 1994, Mr Berlusconi proceeded to dedicate his monopoly on Italian TV channels to the singular task of promoting “Berlusconi”, the owner of the channels. Just when Mr Berlusconi seemed invincible with every frame on TV screens designed to promote him, came the technological revolution — the Internet.
Beppe Grillo, a popular comedian, chastised Mr Berlusconi’s “non-politics” as “bullshit”. He fell back on the Internet and the social media where he first created a group dedicated to the issues of daily life — water, electricity, housing, price of food, unemployment, public transport, pollution, climate change. With Mr Grillo’s choreography, the Internet political revolution exploded – the Five Star Movement. Its present leader is Luigi Di Maio, now 31 years old. It overtook all other political parties on its anti-austerity, anti-establishment and anti-EU platform. The word which establishments gave currency to in describing the new political force was “populist”. As the post-9/11 wars in West Asia uprooted millions, a sizeable number sought refuge in Europe. For the North African migrant, Italy became the entry point. Matteo Salvini, 45, of the League came riding on a wave of anti-immigrant, anti-EU xenophobia. Resurgent anti-German rhetoric has become part of the political discourse. Germany, being the most dynamic economy in Europe, has become an easy target. Envy is only the hidden sentiment, but the real anger is with Italy’s own unflattering performance. Nevertheless, take this outburst from Mr Salvini, for example: “German newspapers call us beggars, ungrateful, lazy, freeloaders and they want us to have a finance minister they like?”
What occasioned this outburst? Since Five Star and the League are markedly different in temperaments, there was hesitation on the part of one to concede the prime ministership to the other. With great difficulty they agreed on the name of an outsider for Prime Minister – a 53-year-old lawyer, Giuseppe Conte. The PM candidate has had some association with Five Star. This was the unstated reason for Mr Salvini’s League to up the ante when its turn came to propose a finance minister. It pushed for an extreme anti-EU, anti-Germany finance minister, 83-year-old economics professor Paolo Savona. Given that the Italian Constitution gives President Sergio Mattarella, who is a known Europhile, sufficient powers to reject a name, proposing Mr Savona as finance minister was like a red rag to the bull. Not only did the President reject Mr Savona’s candidature, he named a replacement which set the cat among the pigeons. Carlo Cottarelli, a 64-year-old former IMF director, as Italy’s finance minister seemed to upturn the “people’s” agenda on which the Di Maio-Salvini team had surged to power. That is when Give Star’s Di Maio tore into the President’s decision: “What is the point of holding elections when rating agencies, major banks, corporations, and other wings of the establishment make all the decisions?”
Fearing an almighty storm, the President agreed to drop Mr Cottarelli. Di Maio’s favoured nominee, Giuseppe Conte, was back as Prime Minister. The situation has barely been saved, but for the first time in history the Italian establishment is on the backfoot. Throughout the Cold War, power was monopolised by an establishment which, according to L’Espresso deputy editor Alessandro Gilioli, was increasingly described as “caste”. There is deep consternation in the ranks of those who have grown accustomed to running the world according to their preferences. Such stalwarts of the global establishment as George Soros and Steve Bannon, the brazen right-winger whom even Donald Trump’s White House could not tolerate, are running around Europe warning the world about the caste structure being upturned. Mr Bannon has declared that a “populist crusade” threatens “our way of life”. An epic battle is now shaping up on the issue of “inequality”, which nations can ignore only to their peril.